Dagestan’s rather tumultuous history harks back to a struggle for sovereignty. When a nation is comprised of dozens of languages, ethnicities, and cultures, the prospect of a unified state can seem vague, distant, and almost certainly violent. Nevertheless, sovereignty is preferable to being a subject to the nearest dominant power, whether it be Persia, Turkey, or Russia.
In Alisa Ganieva’s novel, The Mountain and the Wall, she demonstrates how this turmoil is ingrained in the very fabric of everyday speech. She writes:
Within an eighteen-year period Avar literature had endured a series of shocks: First, in 1920 the Arabic alphabet had been transformed into adzham, the new Arabic-based script, and then, ten years later, adzham had given way to Latin letters, and the books with Arabic script were destroyed. Eight years after that, Cyrillic replaced the Latin alphabet, with additional symbols to mark guttural sounds, and their vocabulary swelled and multiplied. Before the Dagestanis had time to acclimate to one new writing system, they had to start learning the next. There was such confusion that the new Cyrillic words were written without spaces, like Arabic script, out of pure inertia.
The novel really gets going once rumors of a wall begin to circulate. The Wall will supposedly cut off Dagestan from Russia. Everyone has their own theory as to why the Wall may or may not be built and what its consequences will be. Dagestan is indispensable—home to Russia’s finest liquor and a buffer to Islamic uprisings. Dagestan is screwed—leaving the country is now almost more dangerous than staying with the “beards” (i.e. religious radicals) running around. The only one who does not seem to put forth a theory is stony-eyed Shamil, our protagonist-journalist. Nevertheless, like everyone else, all he can talk about is the Wall.
While the rumors begin to circulate, cell phone service is cut. So not only are the citizens of Dagestan physically disconnected from the outside world, they are barred from communicating with anyone beyond shouting distance. Without cell service, they must directly face what is before them, with only their own senses and others’ testimony as corroboration. This pushes people into a public arena where hearsay runs rampant and information becomes increasingly suspect, but precious nonetheless. Speeches proliferate throughout the novel—speeches ranging from a wedding toast to political rallies in the street.
As a plot device, the loss of cell service shows the importance of rhetoric. The speeches are repeatedly described as “rehearsed,” giving us the sense that they are ingrained not only in the muscles of the tongue, but in the minds of the speakers as well. When Shamil’s romantic prospect tells him she’s getting married, it’s rehearsed. A man who does not know Russian nevertheless recites a speech in Russian at a rally. Rhetoric can be easily dismissed as propaganda when we see a glaring headline, but when presented IRL, the grain of a voice or the intent of an eye can sway us despite our firm beliefs.
One can’t help but recall the way the media decries ISIS’s savvy social media maneuvers. It seems as if the real recruiting happens on the level of personal messages and Skype sessions rather than tweets broadcasted for everyone to see. Reading up on ISIS is an easy-enough task: news items clog my feed every time I check my phone. In this way, we may be contributing to a force of terror we are attempting to fight. Indeed, Obama cautioned in February that Republican rhetoric could actually help ISIS. Through well-circulated rumors, the Wall in Ganieva’s novel takes on a looming, misty presence.
As the “beards” make their presence increasingly known through numbers, brutal force, and demonstrations, violence becomes a banal fact of life. This is nothing new to those of us in the US, but in Dagestan explosives catch more headlines than mass shootings. In this passage, two women leisurely reassemble the last moments of a girl who sacrificed herself:
‘Oh I remember now. But it wasn’t the beards who did it. There was just some guy driving along, and he was juggling a live grenade, trying to impress his friends, and he dropped it by mistake—what an asshole!’
‘No, that was a different time. And it wasn’t some guy juggling, it was a drunk soldier driving along holding the grenade in his hands, and he dropped it. A girl was sitting there, she was from Kizilyurt, she kneeled down and shielded the grenade with her body, so nobody else would get hurt. At first the cops couldn’t figure it out, they thought that she was a suicide bomber, but eventually they figured out that she was actually a hero…’
And yet, despite such violence and turmoil Shamil never really develops. Instead, like Meursault, he remains in a heady fog. To maintain such a state despite the political upheaval and casual deaths seems disingenuous. Perhaps this is Ganieva’s way of aspiring for a kind of neutrality or semblance of journalistic integrity, but in the end it falls flat. Shamil’s apathy becomes contagious for the reader. But unlike the lackluster characters, Ganieva does an excellent job of coaxing the world to life with her careful descriptions of minor activities: the movements of hand over cloth or while cooking, the sounds of a market slowing, the chatter of TV talk shows.
The Mountain and the Wall is an important and timely translation, if only for its on-the-ground, insider perspective on the rise of Islam and the communities disproportionately affected by it. Ganieva’s novel reinserts the human into the news. Here we encounter an important alternative to what we see in the news. Along the way Ganieva gives us a tour of one of the most talked-about areas of the world.